Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Mirror Suit

The chest-piece was an old hallway mirror–egg-shaped with false gold molding for a border–that he inherited after his parents died. It came to him in a packing crate, mailed from whoever had taken care of their affairs. He knew they had died before the crate arrived, but there was a note stapled to the address label reminding him of their demise nonetheless.

The hall mirror lay on the floor of the spare bedroom, which had never been used, for several months, reflecting only the floor on which it sat. All of the other mirrors in the house–long, narrow ones the approximate shape of floorboards; smaller, roundish ones; rectangular ones small enough to hold in his hand–also eventually came to rest in the spare room. The only reason some of them survived in the other rooms of the house longer than others was that they were in corners or at angles where he rarely noticed them.

He found the final two loose mirrors in the house in the far corner of the attic, behind a stack of comic books he had forgot he possessed. The mirrors were set in the top half of a woman’s cosmetic compact that had belonged to his former girlfriend Madalyn. He caught a glimpse of his eyes in the small spherical reflectors. They blinked back at him and stared for a second before he averted his gaze, trying to preoccupy it with the adventures of superheroes whose powers no longer intrigued him. It was the first time he had seen any part of his face in years. He still touched it occasionally, running his fingers over the curve of his lips, along the stony bridge of his nose, through the bristly forest of his brows, but that offered only a secondhand reconstruction. Even if he managed to keep in mind all the various features of his face, their placement and proportion was entirely up to his imagination. In effect, he could draw his imagined face according to whatever theme he wished to follow. He variously saw himself as beautiful, an ogre, an innocent child, a self-conscious adolescent.

But he could not manipulate or negotiate with the blank stare of the mirrors. His eyes were simply there, uncomfortably fixed points reminding him with indifferent finality who he was and what he looked like. He turned over the compact with the edge of a comic book and approached them cautiously, like a primitive confronting the magic of an elevator or a gun. Once he was satisfied that it would not spontaneously flip over, he picked it up and brought it to the spare bedroom. He laid the compact on top of the dresser that had never been used, leaving it to rest beside the other smaller mirrors he had collected. They were carefully arranged, the larger mirrors on the left giving way to steadily smaller ones as they neared the bedroom window, all of them with their reflective face turned down. There was an ever-narrowing path between the mirrors on the floor from the dresser to the door.

The furnishings of his own bedroom, the one in which he slept and lived most of his life, were only slightly more elaborate than those of the spare room. The same ceiling fan hung in both rooms, and while his room featured a dull tan rug with a black-and-white striped trim, the paint and carpeting in the spare room were brighter and livelier. His room also had a computer, which sat on a desk in the corner farthest from the window. On it, he performed the freelance contract work by which he supported himself and his lifestyle, as well as ordering his food and all of his life’s other necessities, prepaying for everything, including the extra service charge to have it all delivered. Paradoxically or not, his own room was less crowded than the spare room.

He normally turned off the ceiling light before the room got dark, because of its tendency to create a reflective glare on the window, but this night he left it on. He scarcely noticed the additional light, however; he could not stop thinking about his eyes.


At the very end of his closet, occupying the hanger nearest the wall, was a vestige of his previous life, in which he had gone outside and done numerous things that most people do every day without thinking that anything remarkable has transpired, because for them, nothing has. And while a wetsuit is not an everyday article of clothing, it hung in his closet as a symbol of the days when he had worn such things. Looking at it, he wondered for the first time in years if it still fit.

Thinking back to the last time he had worn it, a jet skiing party with Madalyn’s friends the summer after he graduated from college, he compared his physique then to his body now. Despite the lack of running space in his house, he had amassed an impressive home gym in his basement and used it regularly, and if anything was in better shape now than he had been in college.

He tried on the wetsuit, flexed and felt along his arms and legs for any signs of untoward strain on the suit’s part, and then took it off again, satisfied that there were no obstacles in this phase of his still-forming plan. Next he took it into the spare bedroom and hung it on the door. Picking up his parents’ old mirror, he held it up to the suit. Although somewhat wider than he was at its middle, it would work suitably as a chest-piece. He set it in the hall, so it would not become lost in the jumble of the other mirrors, and looked for a back-piece, finding an ideal candidate underneath the dresser. As he pulled it out, he could see that it was larger than his chest mirror, though not too large for his purposes.

A set of eight strip mirrors he had once received as a present–originally, they were a joint gift to him and Madalyn–proved to be of adequate sizes to cover his arms. They had been manufactured for decorative purposes, and so were not all the same dimensions: half were longer and narrower, perfect for his forearms, while the rest were shorter and slightly rounded, and so would work well on his biceps. He found a similar but larger set to use for his legs. He would wear gloves on his hands.

Next he considered the problem of how to affix the mirrors to the wetsuit. Although the method was not terribly complex–he would use a combination of rubber cement and hanging wire threaded through the skin of the suit, making himself into a kind of human wall–the logistics of how to get himself into the suit with the mirrors attached to it was considerably more difficult. He was going to leave his joints unmirrored in order to maximize his flexibility, but the prospect of putting on a fully-mirrored suit without breaking some of the mirrors, to say nothing of the difficulty of hoisting up so much extra weight on his body at once, forced him to think of a compromise solution. He decided to attach, glue, or otherwise jerry-rig the mirrors on the back of the suit first, while he was not wearing it–because it would be impossible for him to do those with the suit on–and then once those were in place and he was wearing it, to put together the front half of the suit.

With those details taken care off, he turned his attention to his face. Of course he would have to cover it as well, but the question of how to do so was more difficult to answer than his body had been. He had more than enough mirrors of the right sizes and shapes but no obvious way to affix them in place. The wetsuit had a hood that extended around the back of his head and completely covered his hair, but it left his face completely exposed. Because the idea of putting rubber cement all over his face–and possibility sticking hanging wire in his nose–stuck him as patently foolish, he decided to put a ski mask on over the hood and attach the mirrors to it.
He put the mask on and marked the places where the mirrors for his ears, mouth, nose, and eyes should go, took off the mask, and began working. Although his other orifices did not present him with any unforeseen difficulties, when he came to the eyes he realized he had overlooked something. It was so obvious that he laughed when the problem finally occurred to him. With a pair of mirrors over his eyes, he would not be able to see, thus turning the already difficult proposition of moving around in the suit into a seeming impossibility.

While he was trying to think of a solution to this predicament, his mind wandered to the police shows he often watched on television. The interrogation rooms in the various police stations scattered across the televised landscape invariably had an attached observation room, where the other detectives and officers could watch the interrogation unseen behind a one-way mirror. He turned on his computer and searched for one-way mirrors. After skipping past a number of sites offering to sell him a one-way mirror and to install it in his house or place of business, he found a site that explained the physical principle upon which one-way mirrors operated. When a mirror is placed between two rooms, and the light in one of the rooms is significantly brighter than the other, the mirror will be reflective in the bright room, while at the same time allowing anyone in the dark room to see through it. With this principle in mind, it seemed reasonable that the same phenomenon could be recreated with a pair of mirrored glasses, so long as the space between the lenses and eyes was kept dark.

He took the attachment tube off his vacuum cleaner and compared the size of its circumference to the size of the cosmetic compact mirrors. Though too small to fit in the final opening of the tube, the mirrors could fit snugly in the slightly-wider ribs of the tube. He popped the mirrors out of their housing, cut a section of the tube, and placed a mirror in it to make sure that his eyeball measurement was accurate. It fit even better than he had imagined. After securing the mirror in the tube with several dabs of rubber cement, he cut the other side of the tube until it left the mirror the correct distance from his eyes. All that he had to do now was to mold the end of the tube to the curve of his eye sockets.

Once he had finished modifying both lengths of tube, he held them up to his eyes. The effect was similar to looking through a tinted window, or to looking in on a brightly-lit room at night. He cut a piece of the tube in half for a bridge over the nose, and then glued an elastic strap to either side of his invention. The strap was uncomfortably tight around his head, but it held the makeshift glasses to his face and did not allow any extraneous light to reach his eyes.
He laid out the mirrors for the front of the suit on his bed before putting on the half-completed suit. The weight of the mirrors on his back and legs was heavier than he had anticipated, but it was tolerable, especially when he considered the benefits of the suit. He attached the mirrors to the front side of his legs first, then his arms, and finally his chest. Next he put on the ski mask, and finally, the glasses.

For the first time in years, he wanted to see what he looked like. But he no longer had the flexibility necessary to pick up a mirror from the floor, which was where he kept all of his largest mirrors, so he had to settle for the short rectangular one leaning against the wall. Fluffy bears and blue balloons decorated its border. It was one of the last things Madalyn had bought for them, and it was not large enough for him to see his whole self in it all at once, so he first angled it toward his legs and then, in turn, his arms, back, and chest. He saved his face for last.
When he finally picked up the mirror and held it in front of his face, he was greeted with an effect different from when he looked at the rest of his body. When he saw the reflections of his legs and arms, the light bounced from his suit to the mirror and back again at angles that led it off the surface of the mirror. When he looked at his face, however, the angle was such that it reflected him infinitely, in ever smaller iterations, so that he appeared to be shrinking and multiplying even as he stood there. Where his eyes should have been, there was only a bounding spot of brightness as the light of the room attempted to penetrate the reflective surfaces. Trying to follow it made him dizzy.

Walking was not as difficult as he had anticipated. The weight of the mirrors was not as much of an impediment as he thought it would be, although their distribution on the suit–and therefore his body–made him top-heavy, to the extent that he had to stop after each step and reestablish his balance. Fortunately, the front door of his house was not far from the bedroom.

After he opened and closed the door, an operation that required more movements than he had ever before realized, he lumbered down to the sidewalk, wondering what he should do next. He could not go far; walking in the suit was difficult and tiring, and hotter than he had expected. Not having been outside for several years, he had forgotten how warm and humid unconditioned air could be, and wearing what was essentially a black spandex weight suit accentuated the difficulties posed by a summer afternoon.

A woman jogged past him. His glasses severely limited his peripheral vision, so he did not notice her until she was directly in front of him. She was wearing blue athletic shorts and a white tank top, her arms were slender and tanned, and her legs, for as far down as he could see, were toned and muscular. She was wearing sunglasses, but she took them off when she stopped to stare at him. Her hands rested on her hips, one of them holding her sunglasses, and she twisted back and forth slowly, as if admiring the various viewing angles offered by the man in the mirror suit. She reminded him of Madalyn.

The woman put her sunglasses back on and turned to go, but before she had taken a full stride, she looked back at him and waved. He returned it as well as he could, but the suit’s limited range of motion and its weight made it a slow and unnatural-looking wave, something like an astronaut or a deep-sea diver. She smiled. He thought she was trying to meet his gaze, but her sunglasses stopped him from seeing her eyes. It was an unforeseen moment of equality.

Several minutes later, a young boy came up to him, followed a second later by his mother. The boy touched the mirrors on his legs, pressing on them as if trying to set free the image he saw there. The boy was scared when he looked up and saw his reflection in the suit’s eyes.

"What’s wrong with that man, Mom?" he asked. "I don’t think he has any eyes. Can he see anything?"

The mother, an overweight woman who thought he was a statue, said, "There isn’t a person in there. It’s just someone’s idea of a joke. But I don’t think it’s funny. Come on, let’s go home."

"But Mom, it moved! I saw it."

"No, you just thought you did," she insisted, keeping her back to the mirror suit. "You saw everything else moving when you looked at it, and that made it look like it was moving. Mirrors play all kinds of tricks."

She took the boy’s hand in hers and led him away. He tried to twist around for another look, but she would not let him.

After waiting for a moment, he turned and walked toward the center of town; it was the same direction the mother and son had gone, but he was not following them. He waited for the signal to change at the only stoplight in town and crossed the road, stopping in front of the ice cream parlor. There was a bench on the sidewalk. He would have sat in it if he did not have the mirror suit on.

The girl behind the counter looked bored. She cleaned an ice cream scoop in the sink built into the wall, dried it, and surveyed the parlor. Only two other people were inside, and neither of them were interested in ice cream anymore.

One of them was an older man. He had white hair and a white beard, both of which were the same, almost nonexistent length. Sometimes it looked as though he did not have hair at all, and that it was only a trick of the light that made it appear to be there. His hands resembled the roots of a very pale tree. His face was weathered and had a chiseled appearance, but its character changed completely when he smiled. He could lose decades of toil simply by twitching a few muscles in his face.

Sitting across the table from him was the reason he smiled. She was a strange mixture, with a face that looked young and entirely too small for the maturing body to which it was connected. She had slipped off her sandals and was tapping the man’s legs with her feet–small, stub-toed things that were strikingly out of proportion with her hands. She was the sort of girl who looked awkward in every kind of situation. But none of her ungainliness mattered when she smiled and met the eyes of the man sitting across from her.


He took off the chest-piece and all of the mirrors on his arms and legs as soon as he was home. Now flexible enough to bend over without falling down, he turned over all the mirrors in the room, leaning some at angles against the walls, leaving others face-up where they were on the floor, hanging some on the walls and even on the ceiling, and resting the largest mirror he had against the side of the never-used crib. He balanced the next-largest mirror on top of the dresser. He took off the ski mask, laid it on the dresser, and looked into the mirror.

The bounding, reflection-multiplying effect was happening again, but he made himself concentrate on the largest reflection; it was the clearest and the one closest to his real face.

A shaft of sunlight streamed through the window and caught one of the mirrors lying against the wall. It rebounded unpredictably but with inexorable brilliance, intensifying on its instantaneous course through the room. It would only stop when it hit him.

He could see himself going blind.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Praying to the Machine

Thomas had not slept in the same bed as his wife for over a year. It was all the machine’s fault, really. He still loved her, though obviously not quite as much as he loved life itself. He had cried for a long time when he first thought of it that way.

Everyone had thought the machine would be a revolutionary comfort. The exact place and manner of your death, though not the time, all available on a convenient printout sheet. They had tested it for years with the elderly and the mentally ill before they made their announcement. They had to be sure their science was more than a pileup of coincidences.

They tested it on two different groups. One group was told about the machine and its prediction for their deaths. The other group was observed in secret. They did not even know the machine existed. The preponderance of suicides in the first group, they adamantly maintained, was merely a product of statistical variance. There was no known case in which the machine had been wrong.

In many ways, the machine was a blessing. Men can be very courageous when they know they are going to survive. Numerous people celebrated what they called their newfound freedom or lease on life (only some of them sarcastically) by performing outlandish stunts. The phrase "death-defying" quickly became a joke for those who had submitted themselves to the machine’s test.

But not everyone wanted to know, of course. Some people actually wanted to be surprised by death. They thought that not knowing made life more exciting. They said it gave them freedom.

Before he underwent the machine’s test, Thomas had never understood what they meant. He had not believed that ignorance and freedom could be connected. But now that he knew he would die in his sleep, from a brain hemorrhage, with his wife lying beside him, wishing he did not know or that he could somehow forget was all he thought about. He would have prayed if he believed the machine could hear him.

He still spent time with his wife in their room, but whenever he yawned or felt himself getting tired, he took his leave of her and went to the guest room to sleep. They both cried every time he left. She wished he could stay with her to comfort her, to kiss her, to wrap his arms around her, but she could never ask him to stay. She loved him too much to ask him to give up his life for a night with her. She did not pray, either.

He held the beam in his hand and looked at himself in the mirror, wondering what he would look like once he was done. He had tried everything else. This was the only way he could see to be happy again; he needed to forget about the machine. All he really wanted was to lie next to her again, to feel her sleeping breaths on his face.

A red pain clouded his vision the first time he hit himself with the beam. He was bleeding from his ear already, but he had to do it again. He needed to be sure. He raised the beam again, in his stronger left hand this time, and brought it down with all the speed and violence he could summon.

Thomas stumbled out of the guest room, not remembering why he had been in there. All he knew now was that he should be sleeping with his wife. He loved her so much. All the blood was concerning him, too, but he thought she would be able to help him. He had to get to her.

He opened the door slowly and quietly, not because he did not want to wake her but because he simply did not have any more strength than that left. He could barely see her through the curtains of red and white that were flooding his eyes, but he knew she was beautiful. She was lying on her back, her hands resting on her stomach. They rose and fell with her deep, regular breathing. He wanted to call out to her but could not remember how to speak.

She awakened when he fell, the full force of his unconscious body almost throwing her off the bed. There was blood everywhere. It had trailed him to the bed and was now soaking through the sheets and dripping on the floor. The machine had not said anything about blood, or about love. It could not understand them. All it knew was death.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Dwight Manning (excerpt)

These are the first couple of scenes from a novel I hope to be writing over the next few months/year/however long it takes me. My inspiration, if you want to call it that, was something like "High Fidelity" (by Nick Hornby, also a John Cusack movie) set in a video store.

Dwight Manning’s date snorted into her drink. The resulting spray flew out of her glass and landed primarily on her face, though some of it reached the back of her chair. She looked at her napkin, then at Dwight, and then cleared her throat. After another moment of silence, she said, "My face is wet."
"I know it is, Gina," Dwight replied. "Why don’t you dry it off?" Normally, Dwight would not have suggested this course of action, reasoning that his date would feel her intelligence was being insulted by such an obvious solution, but he did not hesitate to suggest it to Gina.
She sighed loudly as she dabbed at her face, being careful not to smudge her makeup.
"What was that about?" Dwight asked.
"What was what about?"
"That sigh you just made. It sounded like you were disappointed or something."
Gina put down her napkin. "Well, I guess I am. Of course you know it’s your fault."
"Why? Did I do something to you?"
"No, Dwight, you didn’t do anything to me. That’s just the point. I’m sitting here, alcohol’s dripping off my face, and you’re not doing anything about it."
"I did tell you to dry your face. Were you looking for another alternative?"
"If I have to make it obvious to you, then yes, I was. I thought you would lick it off for me. It’s your fault it’s there in the first place, remember. You made me laugh when I was getting ready to take a drink."
"You thought I would lick your face?"
"Yes. Is that really so weird?"
"But why would you even want me to do that? It wouldn’t fix anything. Your face would still be wet."
"You just don’t get it, Dwight." Having apparently decided their conversation was over, Gina focused her attention on her salad. She was almost finished with it, while Dwight, who had ordered a steak, had only received his meal a moment ago. When it had arrived, he had said to her, "They must’ve had to kill the cow out back." This was the comment that had precipitated Gina’s snorting into her drink.
"I’m done eating," she said. "Can we go now?"
"But I just started eating."
"So if you’re eating, then what am I going to do?"
"You could order another drink, use the restroom, or even stare longingly at me as I eat my food. There’s really quite an extensive array of options open to you."
"Okay. I’ll go get another drink. I think I’ll get a tequila this time."
Dwight watched as his date got up and walked to the bar, leaving him alone with his steak. At least it was quiet for once, and his steak really was quite good, tender and juicy on the inside, charred slightly around the edges, and nowhere tough or dry. "I might have to come here again," he said. "They had this seafood basket thing that looked good too. I almost went with that tonight, but I’ve always been a steak man at heart."
During the pause in which, under better circumstances, his date would have responded to him and kept the conversation going, Dwight turned around to look for Gina. She was at the bar, standing behind a man whose face Dwight could not could see. Her elbow was resting on his shoulder and her other hand had just reached under the back of the man’s shirt. Dwight returned to his steak.
While Dwight was engrossed in contemplating the rationale that had led to the assortment of knickknacks and memorabilia being placed on the wall above their table, Gina returned and slapped him on the shoulder.
"Hey, I think I might’ve hit it off with this guy over at the bar. But I’m not sure if he’s gonna make a move yet, so could you stay around for a few minutes longer? I might still need a ride with you. You still have to pay and everything, right? I’ll just give you a sign if it’s okay for you to go."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"What do you mean? It wasn’t that hard to understand, was it?"
"You’re on a date with me, Gina. Not the guy you just met over at the bar."
"Well, I guess the way I’d look at it, I’d say I was on a date with you. And let’s face it, we both know we weren’t going anywhere. So I moved on. No hard feelings, right? Anyway, Buck–I think that’s his name–is looking kind of restless, so I think I’d better get back over to him."
"Wait a minute. Does he know I’m over here? Is he watching us right now?"
Gina turned around and waved at Buck. "Looks like he is. But don’t worry. I told him you’re my gay brother. He knows there’s nothing dangerous going on over here."
"You told him I’m gay? Why did you do that? And what’s wrong with you, really?"
"Relax. I told him you’re gay so he wouldn’t get any ideas about, you know, us. It’s nothing against you personally. I know you’re probably not really gay."
"But wouldn’t it have been enough to just tell him I’m your brother?"
"Now that you mention it, yeah, it probably would have. But I didn’t think of that when I was talking to him. If you have to know, I think I get kind of ditzy when I’m talking to a guy I like."
"That’s not the only time," Dwight replied. The date had progressed to the phase where he tried to wring out of it whatever semblance of pleasure he could find. That phase rarely lasted long, but Gina was proving to be an exceptional date.
"So you’ll wait for me, then?" she asked.
"I’m going to finish my steak, because I like steak and this one is tasty. If you’re still here when I’m done, we’ll see. But I’m not making any promises."
"I think that woman at the bar–the old one who’s kind of ugly, don’t you think she is? Anyway, I think she’s been eyeing Buck too, not that I blame her, of course. I mean, look at him, who could? I know I’m prettier than her, but she just unbuttoned another button on her blouse. I guess I’ll have to remind him I’m still here."
"Look, Gina, are you really sure you want a guy like that? I mean, one who’s distracted that easily might not–"
She had not heard any of his advice, he was certain. She was already back talking to Buck, one of her legs resting in his lap. She whispered something in his ear, which caused him to lean back and shake his head in disbelief. Gina took a step back and lifted up her shirt to show Buck the "crazy tattoo" she had on her stomach. She had been starting to tell Dwight about it when her salad had arrived.
Gina had not finished her bottle of beer. It was sitting across the table from Dwight, still half full. That he could recall, she had not snorted into or otherwise defiled it. The only physical evidence it had even belonged to her was the smudge of lipstick on the neck of the bottle, imprinted there when had proved to him that she could open a bottle using only her mouth. That had surprised him at the time. It was a good beer, too, imported from some place neither of them had been able to pronounce. He grabbed it and took a drink.
"I’m having sex with this man tonight!"
Unlike everyone else in the restaurant, Dwight did not look to see who had made her night’s plans a matter of public record. He finished the beer and got up, leaving his steak half eaten. He did not want to be there if Gina tried to give him another sign.

"Come on, it wasn’t the worst date you’ve ever had. You just need some time to cool off. In the morning it’ll all be funny."
"I haven’t told you everything," Dwight said. He waited to let the implications of this sink in before he continued. "Right after her second margarita, she went to the bathroom and threw up."
"Did you go in with her?" asked Roger, Dwight’s roommate.
"No. Of course not."
"Then how do you know she did?"
"Because she told me that was what she was going to do right before she got up. And when she came back, she proceeded to start telling me all about it. Fortunately a waiter walked by just then, and I bought her a beer just to shut her up."
"Okay, so it was bad. But it couldn’t be as bad as Kali."
"That wasn’t her real name. I told you that."
"And just how is that a good thing, Dwight? What’s creepier, a girl who gets stuck with a crazy name because of her parents, or one who just goes out and decides it would be cool to be named after the Hindu death goddess?"
"At least she said she liked me."
"Do I need to remind you about the park, Dwight? Remember that? You’re the one who ran all the way back here."
"I thought it was just a name. I didn’t think it was a serious thing for her. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, actually."
"Okay, maybe I’ll give you that. But still...has Taku heard this story yet? I think he needs to. Taku, could you come in here for a minute?"
An exchange student from Japan who had decided to stay on in the States for college, Taku had learned English by watching the movies he rented from Dwight and Roger’s video store. He spent so much time in the store, and he always gave spot-on suggestions to anyone who asked him, that they had eventually given him a job there. Part of his pay went toward the room he rented in their apartment; the rest they gave to him in cash.
"Have you heard about Dwight’s date with Kali?"
"No. Was that the one tonight?"
"No, Kali came a while back, but she’s a classic. You see, all night Kali kept saying how much she liked the park, but Dwight, being the gentleman that he is, kept telling her it was too cold and dark to go to the park, that they should just get a drink somewhere. Well, eventually Diwght gave in, and they went to the park. I think Dwight needs to tell you about the next part. Come on, Dwight, tell our business associate what happened next."
"I thought we were going to sit on a bench and talk or something, but she didn’t want to do that. Instead, she took me all the way to the back of the park, right up against the forest. I’d been hearing thunder coming for a few minutes, so I told her we should probably get back to my car before the rain started. But she said the rain was why they’d come out here, and that she’d caused it."
"This woman, she could make rain?" Taku asked.
"Really not an important detail, Taku," Roger answered. "Just keep listening. The best part’s coming up."
"Well, we just stood there waiting for the rain to start, and then after another five minutes it did. It was really a pretty strong storm, and when the rain started hitting us, she took off her clothes and started dancing in the rain."
"Like Ricky Martin’s song?" Taku asked.
"Yes, Taku. Exactly like the Ricky Martin song," Roger told him. "That’s definitely going in the next time I tell the story. So there’s Dwight watching this naked chick dancing around right in front of him. Now if you have been there, Taku, what would you have done?"
"Was she good looking chick?"
"Yes, Taku. She was beautiful."
"I would have danced with her."
"Exactly! That’s what any normal guy would have done. But not our Dwight. No, as soon as he sees that, he turns around and bolts straight for his car."
"The rain was cold," Dwight said in his own defense. "And it was those really big drops, the can that actually hurt when they hit you."
"What happened to her?" Taku asked.
"What do you mean?"
"This girl, the naked dancing one, what happened to her?"
"He doesn’t know, Taku. Dwight never saw her again. For all he knows, she caught pneumonia and died right in the park that night. Maybe a troll came and took her body away. We really don’t know."
"There aren’t any bridges in the park."
"What’s that, Dwight?"
"Trolls only live under bridges, and since there aren’t any bridges in the park, it’s just ludicrous to suggest that a troll could have been anywhere near the park that night. The closest bridge is twenty miles away."
"I am sorry, but one thing I do not understand," Taku said. "May I ask?"
"Of course, Taku. What is it?"
"My apologies, but earlier, before you called to me, I was overhearing you from my room. You said this woman was the worst date you have had. May I ask why this is?"
"Well, Dwight did spare you the details of the beginning of the date, and there’s some pretty good stuff in there, believe me, but I suppose that what really vaults it into worst date territory is how it ended. Would you like to tell him, or should I?"
"I am possibly confused, but is not naked dancing on a date a good thing?"
"Normally it is, Taku. It definitely is. But since Dwight doesn’t seem to eager to finish up the story, I’ll do it for him. When he was running away, Dwight ran right into this guy, I’m talking a Freaky Friday kind of thing–do you know the scene I’m talking about, Taku?"
"Yes, with the skinny singing girl and the woman from the Halloween. Correct?"
"That’s the one. Well, Dwight’s flat on his back, and the guy he ran into comes over and helps him up. They both ask if the other’s okay, they both say they are, and then Dwight goes to find his car. But when he gets there, he realizes he doesn’t have his keys. He knows he won’t be able to find them in the rain, so he reaches for his cell phone to call me, and guess what? That’s right, the cell phone’s gone too. So eventually he stumbles into this 24-hour gas station, borrows their phone and calls me. And that’s why it was Dwight’s worst date ever. So what if this Gina chick was rude, and snorted into her drink, and hooked up with a guy she met at the bar?"
"This woman, did you say she was a Thuggee?" Taku asked.
"No. Who are they?"
"This is quite fascinating. Last semester I studied the Thuggee. They worship Kali, the goddess. They are very rare in this country. Quite dangerous as thieves and assassins. They travel in groups, the Thuggee, and they rob people when they are not expecting. Very coordinated plans."
"Wait a minute," Roger said. "Are you saying that the whole performance in the park was a setup? That Kali’s associates, or whatever you want to call them, were waiting for him to run away so they could pick his pocket?"
"Possibly, yes. Although as you said earlier, the expected response upon seeing the dancing naked woman is to join with her. However, they likely would have alternative, maybe you would say contingency, plans. The man who ran into Dwight could have been one of those."
"Okay, Dwight. Not only did you go out with the crazy death goddess lady, but you were, the whole time, the target of an operation the complexity and timing of which makes The Sting II look like a botched job."
"Trust me, Kali looked a lot better naked than Jackie Gleason. Or even Paul Newman, for that matter."
"Not one but two mental images I never wanted to have. Thanks a lot for that, Dwight. If I can’t sleep tonight, neither will you."
"I am sorry, but in the first Sting, Paul Newman was not the patsy. That makes your comparison not entirely accurate, Dwight," Taku interjected.
"You’re missing the point, Taku. I was comparing Kali to Newman, not me to Paul. But I see how you could have been confused. I promise my allusions will be more precise in the future."
"It is not anything. I accept your apology."
"While we’re on the allusion accuracy kick, Taku, I think you meant to say, ‘It ain’t no thang.’ But don’t even bother trying to get that to sound good. Even I sound ridiculous when I try it. I think you have to be black for it to sound good."
"Jamal, who rents many horror movies from the store, he is black. Perhaps I will ask him when I see him in the store again. He would make it sound good, correct?"
"Maybe. But I don’t think it would be a great idea to try. You see, it’s one of those phrases that they’re kind of protective of. Jamal might get mad if he heard you trying to use it."
"Similar to, ‘You my nigger’?"
"Yes, Taku," Dwight answered. "Quite similar to that."

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Let it Shine

Would you notice a difference
if I hid my light,
removed its warmth from your skin
or stuck it in a bush,
igniting a localized conflagration--
a few moments of heat-bent, fizzling illumination?
And if I held it out,
would you come close enough
to be branded by my peculiar fantasies,
or only turn your back and look elsewhere
as the incineration creeps toward my hands?
If I extinguished it under a chalice
or whispered it out of existence,
would my outmoded technology
be missed among the encroaching fluorescence?

Monday, April 23, 2007

In The Desert

I have to cry out shout
to be heard, I write words
with my prostrate body in the sand.
(The length of the letters
six feet long but not as deep.)
The ruts, every waving line of my characters,
are tripping-places where you fall
and land in the sand, and add your lines to the message,
incomplete as you hurry away embarrassed.
You could not see the whole picture and now
you’re afraid you’ve spoiled it,
that I will be angry
because you dared to step on my words,
to come too close for shouting.
And now our rivers will never meet,
yours evaporated by your speed,
mine puddling into the short end
of an exclamation point.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Leftover Miracles

He liked to think that he helped them, that they needed him. But the flowers had been growing before he had found them and would, he was certain, continue to grow after he was gone. The flowers bloomed in three colors: red, white, and purple. He had never been interested in flowers before, had never learned to differentiate between all the different kinds or how to identify them. He still remembered sunflowers, but all the rest of their names had been forgotten.
All three colors of the flowers grew in the same place on the side of the cliff, in a cleft he had found one day when he was looking at the ocean. They rarely happened anymore, but on clear days, he could see down the hundreds of feet to the water and for miles in every other direction. Even when he could not see the waves, he could hear them crashing against the rocks far below him. That sound would last longer than the flowers, unless sound really did not exist when no one was there to hear it.

He thought the flowers were the most beautiful things in the world. Their colors were so bright. Some flowers had thorns in them, he knew, so he never touched them. That was not the only reason, however. He was also afraid he might hurt the flowers if he touched them. And if he hurt
them, they would not be beautiful to him anymore.

He did not have a wife, but he imagined that if he did, she would wear a dress the same color as the red flowers. She would also have a red shawl to wrap around her shoulders when it got colder in the evening. Her skin would be the color of sand: broken-down rocks that have been touched and darkened by the water. When he imagined her, he could see her taking off her shoes and walking barefoot through the grass, or sitting down and stretching her toes in it when they had a picnic. If he had a wife, there would have to be grass.

Although he had thought about it for a long time, he had never been able to decide what his wife’s name should be. Whenever he remembered a name he really liked, he would practice saying it to her, sometimes out loud, and try to picture her coming to him when he called her. But before he could think of what she would answer him, he would always think of another name, one that he thought might suit her better, and he would practice with that one.
Occasionally, he would try to think of names for the flowers, so that he could call them something other than red, white, and purple. That felt too impersonal. He knew, however, that the flowers had been given names before he had ever met them, and that it would be rude of him to try and rename them, to train them to respond to a name that was not really theirs.
The white flowers made him think of his daughter. He did not have one of those either, but if he did, she would wear a white dress and have white ribbons in her hair. Her hair would be black, like her mother’s. She would have tea parties at a little white table with a little white tea set, and both of her parents would be invited. They would drink tea that was white because it was imaginary, and afterwards, she would change clothes and go to play outside. White dresses are no good for running and diving in the grass, but other clothes are made with the expectations that they get dirty. He could almost hear her laughter flying on the wind. When she was too tired to run around any more, he would give her a bath while her mother made dinner. She would blow so many soap bubbles on him that he would have to take a bath too. She would giggle when she poured water over his head and he shook it out of his hair like a dog, and then he would help her put on her white dress again. She would know what dogs were.

As much as he enjoyed looking at the flowers and thinking about the beauty he saw in them, he could not stay with them all the time. Every few days, or sometimes more often than that, he had to go into the city to forage and scrounge. He had started on the end of the city farthest from the flowers, so that as he became older and weaker, he would not have to go as far to search for food, clothes and blankets, and whatever other small things he found. There was a grocery store at the farthest corner of the city that had supplied him for several months, but he had emptied it a long time ago. He estimated that there was less than a fourth of the city left for him to explore.

He always went as fast as he could when he was in the city. The ash that still sometimes fell from the sky had covered all of the gory and grotesque things on the ground, so that from a distance, the city looked like the cliff, except that no flowers ever grew in the city. Seeing the gray everywhere made him think of the flowers, and of how he needed to get back to them and look at them again.

Sometimes while he was searching, he would get lost and come upon store windows that had been smashed. He could never remember if he had smashed them or not, and so he would go inside to search. Sometimes it was a building he had broken into and emptied, and all of the shelves and store rooms would be barren. Walking through those buildings felt like being in something that had been alive once, but that had died because too many of its parts had been taken away. The other buildings, the ones he had not broken into, were much worse, because the ash did not cover what was in them.

The flowers always seemed brighter and more beautiful when he returned from the city. It seemed incredible that they were there, that they had survived as long as he had. They were leftover miracles from the end of the world. Sometimes he thought about what the world would be like if the flowers were not there.

He still remembered that purple was a royal color. He decided it was his color, too. Kings had authority over their people and their land. They could change the names of cities if they wanted, and, he had decided, of flowers as well. It felt good to know he could do that, even though he did not want to. Some kings added words to their own names, words like Great and Conqueror, so everyone would remember what kind of a king they had been after they died.

He had forgotten his name a long time ago. He could have given himself another one, but he had never been able to think of what it should be. Eventually he would become ash too, not enough to bury the flowers, but that did not matter. The beauty of the flowers would disappear because no one would be there to appreciate it, as would the crashing of the waves and every other nameless thing. But as long as he lived, he would look at the flowers and think about how beautiful they were, and he would tell himself that they needed him to be there.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Thoughts on the "Amazing Grace Movie"

The title “Amazing Grace” is somewhat misleading, because this is actually a movie about William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd, Mr. Fantastic in “The Fantastic Four”) and his struggle to abolish slavery in England. John Newton, the man who wrote the song “Amazing Grace,” was a kind of spiritual mentor to Wilberforce. Albert Finney (“Big Fish”) plays Newton as a man broken and haunted by slavery but who finds redemption as he joins Wilberforce’s fight. Finney only has two scenes in the entire movie, but they are two of the best scenes in “Amazing Grace.”

The movie goes back and forth between Wilberforce as a 21-year-old, when he is just beginning his campaign against slavery, and him 15 years later, when the battle has nearly consumed his life. The 21-year-old is idealistic and full of energy; the older man bitter and resigned, at least until he meets his eventual wife Barbara (Ramola Garai).

Before deciding to devote himself to the slave cause, Wilberforce had visions of joining a monastery or living in solitude. He is challenged, however, to consider the possibility that living for God and being a political activist could be the same thing. Along with his conversations with Newton, Wilberforce is also convinced of the need to fight slavery by Olauda Equiano, a former slave who takes him on a tour of a slave ship. The deplorable, hellish conditions aboard convince Wilberforce to remain in the political arena.

He is attempting to more or less overturn a foundation of Britain’s economy, and the opposition he meets is hardly surprising. Most of the members of the House of Commons, in which Wilberforce argues his case, have investments in companies that use slave labor. As a side note, if Congress here were run more like Parliament is in England, C-Span would have much better ratings.

Eventually, the French Revolution, along with England’s continued trouble with America, lead to Wilberforce being accused of treason. He retreats and loses his voice, literally and figuratively, and has almost given up the fight for good when he meets Barbara, a woman who shares his convictions and reignites his passion. The scenes where they both try to convince one another that they should not marry provide some much needed lightness to the story. To be honest, though, the movie does drag in some places.

The God-talk in “Amazing Grace” feels less forced than in most movies that incorporate faith. Two reasons for this is that writer Steven Knight realizes that praying and thinking about religion can actually be humorous, and because Wilberforce’s faith is so integrated into his campaign for social justice. Think Bono in a powdered wig.

Overall, “Amazing Grace” reminded me more than anything of the second half of Spielberg’s “Amistad,” except that here the abolitionist hero is white here. And while the story does occasionally feel slow and the identities of the different parliament members can be hard to keep straight sometimes, this is a movie well worth seeking out and watching, both as a story of faith and perseverance, and simply as a well-made movie.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Distorted Reflections

A rake had been left in the yard. It was just around the corner on the side of the house, hidden in the long grass, so that no one who happened to be walking through the yard could have noticed it before they stepped on it. The rake was at the front corner of the house, and a manual lawnmower—the kind that was powered solely by the person pushing it—was at the back corner. It had been left sideways in the narrow path that connected the front yard to the back.

Inside the house, she was watching television while she waited for her cookies to finish baking. The only programs on were men talking about sports, movies that no one had wanted to watch even when they were new, and people who wanted to sell things. The local news would be coming on soon, but all they talked about these days was the burglar who had been seen in numerous neighborhoods all across the town, and she had heard all she wanted to hear about him. She was currently watching a woman move a whisper-quiet vacuum cleaner across a square of carpet that had apparently been brought into the studio just for this segment. The woman was demonstrating that with this model, you could pick up rows of inch-long nails from the carpet without disturbing your husband’s football game.

Three complete outfits were lying on her couch. The tops and blouses were on the back cushions, and the skirts and slacks were on the bottom cushions. It almost looked like three were people sitting there. She took off the outfit she had been considering and threw it onto the pile in the corner of the room. Standing in the living room wearing only her underwear, she picked up the next option from the couch and tried it on.

She should have been doing this in the bathroom or her bedroom, because there were mirrors in those rooms, but she could not hear the oven timer from there and so she had compromised by bringing her wardrobe into the living room. With the lights in the room turned on and the darkness outside, the windows reflected enough for her to be able to decide whether a particular outfit was the one she should wear. She knew the reflections the windows gave were distorted, but she had decided she would have to live with that.

The oven timer went off before she had a chance to button her shirt, so with the ends of it flapping behind her, she went into the kitchen and took out the cookies. They were oatmeal chocolate chip cookies that she had made from a recipe she found in a magazine. She did not normally eat oatmeal, much less oatmeal cookies, but she had decided to try them tonight. She set them on the counter to cool and went back to look at herself in the window. She had buttoned her shirt and fixed the collar by the time she returned to the living room.

She did not especially like the way she looked in the window—she had never liked looking at herself in mirrors—but the shirt fit her well, and with the top two buttons undone, she thought she looked as good as she could. Only one of the pairs of shoes she had brought down matched the skirt she had on, so she did not even have to make a decision about that. After only a brief consideration, she decided to wear a necklace.

The cookies had cooled by now, so she put them on a plate, grabbed a chair from the kitchen table with her spare hand, and went to the front door. She had to put both items down—first the chair and then the plate on top of it—in order to be able to open the door, and because the screen door closed automatically unless it was propped open, she had to hold it open with her foot while she grabbed the chair and placed it on the porch. Now all she had to do was wait.

As she had on previous nights, she rested her back against the door and hoped she would not have to eat all of the cookies by herself. Even though they were different from what she normally made, they were good cookies—she tasted one to confirm their quality—and under different circumstances she would have eaten them gladly, even factoring in the extra workout time it would take her to burn off their calories. But that was not why she had baked them.

One of the dogs from the corner house started barking at a car, but when she saw that the car was driving past her street, she put her head back against the door. A few minutes later, the married couple who had moved next door in a few months ago jogged past. She had talked to them several times, and they had even invited her over for dinner once, but she had made up an excuse and told them she would not be able to come. She was glad the porch light was turned off and they could not see her.

Just as she was getting ready to go inside for the night, she heard a noise from the back of the house. She froze and strained to make sure that she was hearing was finally what she wanted to hear. After another few seconds it was unmistakable: Someone had moved the lawnmower out of the way and was now coming up the side of the house. She heard him reaching, searching for a window that might have been left unlocked, and she smiled, knowing that he would not find one. He would have to come around to the front of the house.

His steps were slow and cautious—it was obvious he knew what he was doing—but she allowed herself to hope. She could almost see him now, and she could have watched the entire scene if she had stood up, but she did not want to risk anything yet. Finally her patience was rewarded: He stepped on the tine end of the rake, and the handle flew up and hit him. She waited until he had landed on the ground before she moved.

He was dazed but not unconscious. Fortunately, he was able to stand up and walk by himself—she needed only to guide him to the porch. He was a large man, dressed entirely in black and with a black ski mask over his face. Though he had been startled by the rake hitting him, he retained enough of his senses to pull off the mask before they reached the porch.

“Are you all right?” she asked. She turned on the light and sat down.

The plate of cookies was now between them. He looked at them, and then at her, and said, “I think so. I’m just a little startled, is all. I’m sorry to be walking through your yard at night like that, but I was on my way home from work—I’m on second shift at the factory down the road—and I figured I’d just cut through a few yards and save me a few minutes on my trip. I’m sorry if I scared you.”

“You didn’t scare me at all. I was already out on the porch when I heard you. Some nights, I just like to sit out here and listen to the night. And tonight, I was in a baking mood, so I made some cookies to have while I sat out here. Would you like one? They’re oatmeal chocolate chip.”

“How long ago did you say they came out?”

“I didn’t, but it’s only been a few minutes. Go ahead and have one.”

She handed him a cookie in such a way that he had to touch her hand when he took it.

“So you just decided to bake cookies in the middle of the night? I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m prying, but that seems a little strange to me.”

“Well, I’m actually like you. What I mean is that I work second shift too, so I just got off work a little while ago.”

“Really? Where do you work?”

“At this little bakery on the other side of town. You probably wouldn’t have heard of it. It’s late when I’m there, of course, so I don’t actually make the bread or anything. I just organize the orders and get everything ready for the girls who come in for the morning shift.”

“So do you work with dough and flour at all?” He bit off a piece of the cookie. “’Cause you’ve certainly learned your skills from somewhere.”

“Actually, I don’t get to touch much of anything when I’m at work. I guess that’s why I get in these baking moods when I come home sometimes. You’re just lucky you came by on a night when I was in the mood. If you like them, that is.”

“Oh, they’re good cookies, all right. I’ve always liked oatmeal, too. It adds a nice texture. It’s just that I’m a little surprised they make you wear those fancy clothes when you’re at the bakery.”

“What? Oh, no, this isn’t what I wear to work. It’s just that one of my friends is coming in to see me tonight, and we’d talked about going out when she gets here, so I wanted to be ready for her when she comes.”

“Got it. When’s she supposed to come in?”


“Your friend. The one you said is coming to visit you. When’s she going to be here?”

“In a while. Why do you ask?”

“It’s just that I didn’t want to keep you here or anything. I wouldn’t want you to miss out on going out with your friend because you thought you had to take care of me or something. I’m really not that bad. It’s just that it was a shock, that’s all.”

She handed him another cookie. “Now that I think about it, she might not be coming at all tonight. She mentioned something about that. She’s driving in, and she said that if she was too tired to make it all the way here, she’d probably end up getting a hotel room somewhere. So there’s no hurry. You can stay as long as you need to.”

“This sure is a big house you’ve got here,” he said, looking around at the porch and the windows. “Do you live here all by yourself?”

“Not until two years ago. I wouldn’t have gotten to keep it, but my ex-husband’s lawyer just wasn’t as good as mine.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear you’re divorced.”

“Don’t be. I saw it coming way before he actually said anything, and I’m glad it’s over. I’m really better off alone.”

“But doesn’t it ever get lonely, living in this big place all by yourself? I’m sure you could rent out part of it if you wanted to, make it into an apartment.”

“I’ve thought of that, but actually, with all the stuff I still have here, there isn’t much room. I had a really good lawyer.”

Neither one looked at the other while they tried to think of something more to say. He tensed and ducked down a little when a car drove by, but she did not notice.

“I thought that might have been your friend,” he said. “Did she say how late she might be?”

“No, she didn’t, actually. I’m not sure when she might show up.”

“Do you think you might want to call her? I mean, you don’t want to wait out here all night, do you?”

“It’s a nice night, so I wouldn’t mind staying out here a little longer. Don’t feel like you need to stay here with me or anything. I like having someone to talk to while I wait, of course, but I’ve got plenty of cookies left, and I’m fine with just sitting here. But I forgot what you said. I’m sorry. You were in a hurry to get home.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You said you were going through my yard because it was going to be faster. I figured that meant you were in a hurry.”

“Well, I can see how you’d take it that way, but what I really meant was that I don’t like walking around town at night. It can be dangerous out there, you know.”

“Oh. So know that you’re here, you not in a hurry anymore?”

“Not at all. Could I have another cookie?”

She let him see that she was smiling. “You know what I just realized?”

“No, I don’t, actually.”

“We still don’t know each other’s names. We’ve been sitting here, eating cookies and talking, but we never introduced ourselves.”

“Call me Jacob,” he said. “Who are you?”


“That’s a pretty name. But you know what? I can’t stop thinking about that friend of yours. Don’t you think you should maybe go inside and call her?”

“I guess I could, just to make sure she’s okay.”

She did not know if he would follow her inside and so did not look to see if he was. She would have been too disappointed, now, if she looked and did not see what she wanted to see.

His steps were silent behind her as she went to the phone. She turned sideways to pick up the receiver and saw him out of the corner of her eye, just before he swung and hit her. The cordless receiver landed on the floor a second after she did, its batteries spilling from the back of it.

“Now, where’s your most valuable stuff, stuff like that necklace you’ve got on? I’m not interested in the cheap crap. Just tell me what I want to know and I won’t hurt you.”

“Upstairs, the first door on the right. That’s my jewelry room. I’ve been collecting jewelry for years. There are diamonds and pearls, and there’s even some gold, too. That’s where should go.”

He tied her hands and feet together with a rope he had in his back pocket. His hands had felt cold at first, but they warmed against her skin as they worked the knots. He was breathing hard now and he blew air over her neck and into one of her ears. The knots were tight and she could not have gotten away if she had wanted to.

She listened while he banged open the door that had never been locked and began searching the jewelry room. She could hear his hands working quickly: He sorted through her necklaces, rings, and other valuable trinkets, putting the ones that were worth money into his pockets and throwing the others on the floor. Some of the least valuable pieces were the most precious to her, because she could remember why those had been given to her and who had told her she was pretty when she had received them. Now he was throwing those on the floor and breaking them.

He paused in the doorway on his way out. He told her, “My name isn’t Jacob.”

“Are you leaving right away?” she asked.

He was already gone when she started to wonder how long it would be before someone found her and untied her. She had to smile when she thought that someone would do that for her.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Wonders of the World

His favorite thing about sitting at the top of the monkey bars was that he was up so high; it felt like he could see everything. All of the other kids playing around him, the seagull skimming over the surface of the lake, the reflected gray of its wings swallowed by the encompassing reflection of the clouds, the dog on one side of the park and the two older kids on another. They were too old to still be kids, one a boy and the other a girl, but they were not quite adults yet, either; they were both waiting in the between time. Right now the boy was sitting in the chair swing watching the girl, who was holding her shoes in her hands while she walked on the edge of the water. From his perch atop the monkey bars, Jared could not tell what the boy was thinking about, but he felt sure he was thinking about something. It had been a long time since he had moved.

Jared had watched several other boys, and even a few girls, jump down from the top of the monkey bars. It looked easy when they did it, like falling was the simplest thing in the world. Jared knew it really was, and it was not the falling he was scared of; it was in the seconds of waiting to let go that he always decided to climb down instead. That was how he had gotten up in the first place, which meant he would not have to do anything he had not done before, even though he had to do it backwards.

He walked around the swing set, where kids were jumping off and flying–but only for a few seconds, of course. The dog was at the end of the parking lot, his leash wrapped around a pole while the owner bought a bottle of water from a vending machine. They had just sat down to share the water when Jared walked past them. He liked most dogs, but this one was big and looked like he could be dangerous. Water splashed on the ground as the dog lapped it from the bottle.

There was no sidewalk on the road back to his house, so Jared walked with one foot on the curb and one in the grass. He only stayed on the road until it ran into the railroad tracks, and then he walked beside those. His parents had told him about the shortcut a long time ago, before he was old enough to walk to the park by himself.

While he was walking along the base the small gravel hill beside the tracks, he heard what he thought was the sound of someone crying, or rather, the sounds someone makes when they are almost finished crying. He looked around but did not see anyone on his side of the tracks, so he climbed up the gravel to see if it was coming from over there. A few feet in front of him, an old man was lying on the tracks, his shoulders not quite touching the rails on either side of him. The sound had come from him.

“What are you doing?” Jared asked. “Are you hurt or something? I can try and help you if you are.”

The old man put up his hand. It looked like a flower growing out of the tracks. “I’m not hurt. I’m just lying here, that’s all.”


“I’m waiting.”

Waiting was not a bad thing, but Jared was pretty sure the old man had not picked a very good place to do it. “Isn’t it dangerous to wait here? A train could come by.”

The old man sat up. He was about as old as Jared’s grandfather, and he had been holding a pair of glasses in his hand. He put them on and said, “Yes, you’re right. Waiting here is dangerous, mainly because a train could come by.”

“Why are you waiting here, then? There’s lots of safer places to wait.”

“I’m waiting here because I have to.”

Jared tried, but he could not think of a reason why that could be true. “I don’t understand,” he said to the old man.

“No, I don’t expect you would. You’re too young.”

“But I’m pretty smart. I get all A’s, actually.”

“That’s not the kind of young I was talking about. I meant that you haven’t lived enough to understand.”

“Well, even if I won’t understand, could you tell me what you’re doing anyway? I would like to know.”

The man pulled his legs toward his chest and rested his elbows on his knees. His clothes were dusty from lying between the train tracks. “I was lying here waiting for a train to come. I’m going to let it pass over me.”

“That’s dangerous! Do you even know if you’ll fit? You’d die if there wasn’t enough room.”

“I know that this is dangerous. And no, I don’t know if I’m going to fit or not. I think I will, but I’m not entirely sure.”

“You could check, though. I bet if you went on the internet you could find out just how high off the ground the cars are.”

“You’re probably right about that.”

“So why don’t you check, then?”

“Because if I knew, it wouldn’t be dangerous anymore.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I told you you wouldn’t. You’re too young. When you’ve lived as long as I have and know as much as I do, there aren’t many dangerous things left in the world. There are a lot of stupid and foolish things I could do, but they wouldn’t be dangerous. I’ve either seen them done, or heard a story from someone who’s one of them, or learned about them, and I would know what would happen before I even started. With this, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“I’m sorry, but you can’t understand what I’m doing now. Maybe you will when you’re older.”

“Why maybe?”

A train whistled. The man lay down and said, “Because you might be braver than me. Now you need to get out of the way.”

Jared went to the edge of the gravel and sat down. He would be safe there, and he wanted to be there to help the man afterward.

The train did not look like it was moving very fast at first. As it got closer, though, its speed seemed to keep increasing until, by the time it went over the man, it felt like it was flying. The words on the cars flashed by too quickly for Jared to read them. He hoped the man would be all right.

It was louder than he would have believed, even if a really convincing person had tried to tell him about it. It was a constant noise, like sitting at the shore of the ocean if every wave crashed with the force of a thunderbolt. There was a kind of pulse to the noise too, because air was pulled through the gap between the cars and came whooshing out above him. A new gap flashed in front of him every second, but it somehow seemed slower than that.

When all the cars had finally passed, Jared wished the train were longer, because each car meant that he had to wait a little longer to go up and look at the man. He had never seen real blood up close; he had scraped his knees and elbows before, but that was different somehow. He knew what how that would look–could figure it out by how far he had slid or onto what surface he had fallen–without having to actually see it.

There was no blood. The man was shaking, but it was not like shivering in the cold. There was a reason for that kind of shaking and a remedy for it, but if there was a remedy for the old man’s shaking, Jared did not know what it was. His ears and even his lips were quivering just as much as his feet and hands. Whatever had happened to him, it was happening to all of him.

“Are you okay?” Jared whispered in the old man’s ear.

The old man did not answer. He did not appear to have even heard the question, or to have noticed the boy standing above him. His eyes stared. Jared did not know if shaking him would help, and he thought it might even make him worse, so he did not try.

The man’s body continued to shake. A tear from Jared’s eye fell onto the man’s cheek. He wanted his parents here, to explain what was happening and tell him it would be okay. They were good at explaining things to him, even hard things like why seawater has salt in it. But there was a fear in him, and he was crying because the fear was that even his parents could not explain the old shaking man lying between the rails.

His body finally stopped shaking, and his arm went into the air. It took a minute for Jared to figure out, first, that he was not dead, and second, that he wanted help getting up. After he had helped the man to his feet, which took a long time because he was heavy and stiff, Jared asked him again if he was okay. The man pointed to his ears and shook his head. Losing his hearing was his price for lying under the train.

He was smiling, though. It was not a huge smile, like he was seeing his grandchild for the first time or had just heard an extremely funny joke. His smile was smaller and more private, as if he knew a secret and was not going to share it with anyone, no matter how many times they asked. It was also the kind of smile that lasts longer than a normal one. Jared wondered if he could have told his secret, even if he wanted to.

The man patted him on the back and started walking away. Jared watched him to see if he would look back, either at him or at the tracks, but he did not.

Just before he got home, Jared saw the same man and dog from the park. They were walking on the opposite side of the road, so he had to speak loudly to ask if he could pet the dog.

“Sure you can,” the owner said. “His name is Cairo, and he loves children. Come on over.”

While Jared was petting the dog’s head and scratching his throat, Cairo licked his face, which made him laugh. That was his price. He was still smiling when he thanked the owner, and when he went inside, and even after he had washed his face and hands for dinner.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

The Snowman

At first, Miles had thought about building the snowman first and then putting it in something to move it, but he wanted to build a big snowman, one that would be too big for him to pick up and carry. The first snowball would be the hardest, since it was the biggest. If he could figure out how to move that one, the rest of it would be easy.

There was a tray in the garage that they had put their TV set on before they got their entertainment center last year. They did not use it anymore, but it was still in the garage because they had not thrown it away. But when he looked at it, he knew it would not work because even though it had wheels, it was not big enough. Miles wanted to build a big snowman.

Next he went to the shed in the back yard. There were lots of tools in there, but they were all for gardening and painting and working with wood, so they could not help him build a snowman. There was a wheelbarrow, though. Normally wheelbarrows were used to move dirt and stuff like that from one place to another, but there was no reason they could not be used to move snow. It had wheels and a big bucket kind of thing–Miles thought that was the barrow, but he was not sure–and it even had handles. He could use those to move it around in the snow, and he could also tip it down and roll the first part of the snowman in that way, in case it was too big for him to pick up.

He had planned to build the snowman in the front yard, but when he was rolling the wheelbarrow out of the shed, he looked around and figured out that there was more snow in the back yard, so he decided to build it back there. And since he had the wheelbarrow, it did not matter where he built it. The snow was thick and wet, which is the best kind for building snowmen. Miles knew that snow is really just frozen water and so all snow is wet, but some kinds of snow feel wetter than other kinds.

Before he started building the snowman, he walked slowly from the shed, which was at the very back of the yard, toward the house. Next he walked from one side of the yard to the other. He counted his steps as he went, because he knew that the farther he rolled the first snowball, the bigger it would be, and he wanted to make the biggest snowman he could. It took him 26 steps to walk across the yard and only 21 to go from the shed to the house, so it seemed like that would be the best way to go. When Miles thought about it some more, though, he figured out that if he started in the very back corner of the yard, rolled all the way past the side of the house, and kept going into the front, he would have a really big snowball, a lot bigger than if he just stayed in the back yard. He counted 53 steps from the back yard to the front. He hoped he would be strong enough to push the snowball when it got that big.

Finally confident that he was going to make the biggest snowman he could, Miles started rolling. He gathered up the snow in the back corner of the yard and started packing it the way his dad had shown him, and he soon had a snowball that was big enough to start rolling. He did not understand exactly how it worked, but when he rolled his snowball, it picked up the snow from the ground in front of it and got bigger. He thought that maybe the little antler parts of the snowflakes in the ball caught the antler parts of the snow on the ground and took them along for the ride, and then those new flakes caught even more from the ground, but he was not sure that was how it worked. He reminded himself to ask Mrs. Campbell, his teacher, if she knew when he went back to school. Mrs. Campbell was a good teacher and knew answers to lots of questions like that.

The snowball was as tall as his knees by the time he got to the middle of the house. It was heavy, too. He had to push hard with his legs while his arms kept the snowball going straight, because there was not much space between the house and the neighbor’s fence, and he did not want to hit either of them.

When he got to a good stopping place in the front yard, the snowball was up to his waist. He had barely been able to roll it the last few feet, and he was not sure if he could get it onto the wheelbarrow, but he had to try. Once the wheelbarrow was in place and tipped forward, he pushed the snowball for what he hoped was the last time, but it just moved the wheelbarrow along with it. He needed something that would stop the wheelbarrow from sliding, and so that when he pushed the snowball into it, the wheelbarrow would tip right-side-up and the snowball would be sitting on top of it.

In the shed he found a roll of the black plastic they had put under the gravel by the house, which would help, but it was not enough by itself because it would roll too. He looked around for another minute before he remembered that he had left the gardening tools outside. There were two little gardening shovels, which his mother had told him were called spades, sitting on the ground. Those would work perfectly.

Back in the front yard, Miles stuck the black plastic roll in front of the wooden bars on the bottom of the wheelbarrow, and then he dug the spades into the ground behind the plastic. His plan was to have the plastic make it easier to tip the wheelbarrow back up, while the spades would keep the plastic from rolling. He took a deep breath, put his shoulder into the snowball, and pushed as hard as he could.

His plan worked just the way he hoped it would. The plastic made it easy to tip the wheelbarrow, but it almost worked too well; when he was done pushing, the wheelbarrow tipped back and forth like a rocking horse, and Miles was scared that it would fall over the other way. But it stopped after rocking back and forth a few times, and the hardest part of building the snowman was over.

He started another ball of snow and rolled it around in a circle in the front yard. Before long the middle section was as large as he wanted it to be, but he had a problem now, because he would not be able to lift the second snowball on top of the first one. He was not tall enough to do it. Miles now had to decide whether he would make the first snowball smaller so he could put the second one on top of it, or to try to figure out some other way to get the snowball up there. The first one was just the size he had been hoping for, maybe even a little bigger than that, and he really liked the way the second had turned out, too. The way he looked at it, his only real option was to figure out some way to make himself taller.

Nothing in the shed would help, because all of the tools and things in there were for working in the ground, and Miles needed to work in the air. He needed the ladder from the garage. He had used it when they repainted the house last year, and he had gotten comfortable balancing himself on the ladder while holding a paint can in one hand and a brush in the other. He picked up the second snowball to see how heavy it was. It would be hard, but he was pretty sure he would be able to hold it steady long enough to get it on top of the first snowball. He would only have to climb to the second or third step to reach it.

After he made sure the ladder would not slide on the snow, Miles positioned it next to the wheelbarrow, picked up the second snowball, and got on the ladder. He had to go up backwards, but it was not hard to keep his balance and it was not long before the snowman was two-thirds complete. He picked up some short sticks for arms and stuck them into the snowman. All he had left to do was make the third snowball, put a face on it, and take it inside.

Since it was the smallest one, the third snowball did not take long to make. Once it was in place, Miles looked around for things he could use to give the snowman a face. He broke off the end of a branch from the neighbor’s pine tree for the mouth, found two nuts on the ground for eyes, and broke off an icicle from the bumper of their car to use for a nose. After adjusting the eyes a few times to make sure they were even, Miles sat on the ladder and looked at the snowman. It looked just the way he had pictured it in his mind.

The only thing he had left to do was to measure how tall the whole thing was, including the wheelbarrow. He had to make sure it would fit through the door beforehand, because it would be a disaster if the head was knocked off while he was pushing it inside. It would probably fall in his own head, but worse than that, the snowman would be headless, and he had worked too hard to bring a headless snowman inside.

The snowman and the wheelbarrow together were almost four feet tall, which was a few inches taller than he was, but there was still plenty of room to spare. He was not sure why he had been worried. His dad walked through the door every day, and he was a very tall man.

The ramp had been put in that summer. It led straight up to the front door, and it was there so Emmy, Miles’s older sister, could get in and out of the house with her wheelchair. Miles usually did not think about the ramp much, but he was glad it was there now, because he could not have rolled the snowman inside without it. If Emmy had not been using a wheelchair, though, he would not have needed to bring the snowman inside.

Miles’s parents had told him about the disease Emmy had, but he had not understood most of what they had said. The only part he really understood was that his sister was too sick to play with him, especially in winter when it was cold and there was snow everywhere. But Miles remembered how much fun they had when they built snowmen last year, and if she could not come out with him, he was going to bring a snowman to her.

It was warm inside the house, and the snowman was going to melt quickly once he got it inside, so it had to be big if it was going to last until he got it to Emmy’s room, which was all the way at the back of the house. He had not told his parents about his plan because he wanted it to be a surprise. Emmy did not get many surprises anymore, at least not good ones, and Miles knew that she liked being surprised.

The wheelbarrow was heavy, but it was not hard to push once he got it started. He slowed down once he was inside, though, because he wanted to be careful and not bump anything. He could hear his parents talking upstairs.

Emmy’s door was open, and Miles had to peek around the snowman to make sure she was in there. She was sitting on her bed, but her eyes were closed and he could not tell if she was asleep.

"Emmy? Can you hear me? I have something to show you."

Emmy laughed when she saw the snowman. It was not that she thought the snowman was funny; she was just so surprised to see one in her bedroom that it was the only way she could react. It was melting and starting to drip into the wheelbarrow, but was still a good snowman. Miles was proud of it.

"Miles, did you do this by yourself?"

"I built it for you, since you’re sick."

She motioned for him to come over and give her a hug. While she was holding him, she whispered, "It is cold?"

Miles could not figure out if she was asking this as a joke. "It’s a snowman. It has to be cold. It melts if it’s not."

"Could you bring a piece of it to me?"

"But you’re sick. I thought cold was bad for you."

"Too much of it is. But just a little bit is okay."

He scooped a chunk out of the snowman and brought it to her. She held it for a moment, enjoying the feeling of cold wetness in her hand. A drop ran down her arm and onto the sheet, and she threw the slushy ball at him. Miles, who had not been expecting her to do anything like that, gasped and looked around, as if an explanation were hiding somewhere in the room.

"You know what the best part is?" Emmy said. "You can’t get me back until I’m better. And I bet you’ll have forgotten all about it by then."

"No I won’t. I’ll write it down to make sure I won’t." He paused. "When are you going to be better?"

"Well, I’m not really sure about that, but it probably won’t be for a while. I think you’d better take it back outside before it starts melting all over the floor, though. I don’t think we need to tell Mom and Dad about this, either. It can be our secret. But thanks a lot for doing this, Miles. I didn’t think I’d get to feel snow this year. Come back in here once you’ve taken care of your snowman, okay?"

Miles carefully turned around the wheelbarrow and rolled it back outside. He dumped it out in the front yard, put the ladder back in the garage, and took the wheelbarrow and the other tools back to the shed. He stopped and looked at the remains of the snowman before he went inside. The parts that had melted, even though they were broken up and turned upside down, were already starting to freeze again.

Back in Emmy’s room, he climbed on her bed and snuggled against her. He had taken off his snow clothes at the front door. He was tired. Building a big snowman all by himself was a lot of work.

"You know what my favorite part of winter is?" she asked.


"Playing in the snow. Especially playing with you."

"But you can’t do that anymore."

"What you are you talking about? I just threw at snowball at you. Sure, it was half melted and I only got to do it once, but that still counts."


"Really. And you know what? I think that because that was the only snowball I’ll get to throw this year, I’ll remember it more than any of the other ones I’ve thrown at you."
"I could bring you another one sometime."

"Thanks, Miles. I’d like that. But not tonight." She yawned. "I’m getting pretty tired. Could you turn off the light when you leave?"

Miles closed the door behind him after he turned off the light. His mother met him on the stairs and told him to get ready for bed. She said she would be up once she checked on his sister.

"She’s already asleep," Miles said.

"Were you in there?"

"Yeah. She said she was getting tired." He wanted to add that she had thrown a snowball at him, just to see what she would say, but he did not because that was going to be his secret with Emmy. It would not be as much fun as playing in the snow, but it would still be good. And it was something they could do together. That was the best part.